NEW ALBANY — Since first being brought to the attention of the public last October, the movement to light the Sherman Minton Bridge has picked up a bit of steam.
More interest is being shown by the community, as the following of the aptly-named Facebook page Light the Sherman has almost quadrupled.
But now that the grand vision has been announced, organizers are starting to get more granular with their plans.
The project was largely pushed by Brian Hampton, owner of the Floyd County Brewing Company (FCBC), from which patrons have a beautiful view of the double-decker bridge spanning the Ohio River. With the roughly $100 million rehabilitation of the Sherman Minton by the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) getting closer with each passing month, Hampton thought about the possibilities that could come from a revamped bridge.
To him, the possibilities weren't just limited to its integrity. Instead, he looked to the Sherman Minton's sister bridge in Memphis, Tenn. — the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Similarly designed to the Sherman Minton, its arches and metalwork are adorned with decorative light, not unlike the Big Four Bridge in Jeffersonville.
The biggest immediate effect of bringing the lights, according to Hampton, is promoting beautification of the oft-neglected west end of New Albany, near FCBC.
"We're kind of on the outskirts of the center of downtown," he said. "Sometimes it feels like we're on an island. When you look at a lot of cities, the closer your proximity to the bridge, the higher the value. In New Albany, it's sort of flipped upside down. In New Albany, those properties are either vacant or dilapidated."
By lighting up the bridge, he added, that area would immediately become prime real estate, capable of bringing new growth and revenue to the city as a whole.
To help get to the execution steps of the process, Hampton has teamed up with New Albany City Council members Al Knable and Jason Applegate, along with lawyer Matt Schad and accountant Matt Brown.
"The whole idea is to line up some heavy hitters," Knable said, noting that he and Hampton are keeping the entire process as non-partisan as possible.
The group plans to meet for the first time this week, where they will establish a 501(c)(3) to help fund the project, per recommendation of INDOT officials.
The arrangement moving forward, Hampton said, will be a "three-headed monster," of sorts.
"The entity we’re creating would be a source of funding," he said. "The other part of it would be the city to manage it once it’s in place. Then INDOT, since they own the bridge. There’s going to have to be some contractual document put in place between these three bodies on how this money will be transferred. It’s pretty complicated actually.”
According to Knable, he has gotten word that neither INDOT nor the federal government will stand in the way of the project. That being said, they will not be allocating any funds to it, either.
"I got a written letter from INDOT saying there was no prohibition against it, but there would not be any tax money coming for that either," he said. "Their highest priority was, is and remains — as it should be — to have a bridge that people can drive across. The primary point of that bridge is commerce."
The next steps moving forward would be to have an initial study done by engineers. As Knable put it, they need to know how much they'll need to spend on a study that would then determine how much they'll need to spend on the project as a whole.
Something like that, he said, could run into the tens of thousands of dollars, unless they are able to find an engineering firm willing to work pro-bono. With no funding from state or federal sources, Knable said the project will largely be funded privately. But that doesn't mean he's not open to pushing for a small contribution from the city's economic development team.
"Locally, I would really like the economic development commission to explore it," he said. "If we can get a study done for $25,000 to $30,000, my opinion is that we've spent a lot more money on less-deserving projects than that. My hope is that they'll give that a fresh look. That's really what I want to discuss with the mayor."
The end result, in Hampton's mind, can range from simple accent lighting to a more elaborate animated show. How that will shape up will be determined by the budget.
In the coming months, the team will begin looking toward fundraisers and finding individuals interested in doing a bit of philanthropic investment in the city.
“I’m pleased that local officials and local business people all seem to be in favor of it," Hampton said. "The two things I hear most is that it can’t conflict with the bridge construction itself. The other is that it’ll lead to bridge tolls or their taxes going. That’s not the case. We think we can raise the money to get this thing put in place."
All in all, both agree that lighting the Sherman Minton Bridge in any fashion would be a plus for the city. Studies show that local art installations have a positive impact on a community's economic well-being by attracting new visitors to the city and bringing more residents downtown.
"I get it — it's just a bunch of pretty lights," Knable said. "But people have come for less than that. It's part of an experience."